The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

Published by Penguin Viking on July 8th

Available from West End Lane Books and All Good Bookshops

What They Say

Before anyone else is awake, on a perfect August morning, Elle Bishop heads out for a swim in the glorious freshwater pond below ‘The Paper Palace’ — the gently decaying summer camp in the back woods of Cape Cod where her family has spent every summer for generations. As she passes the house, Elle glances through the screen porch at the uncleared table from the dinner the previous evening; empty wine glasses, candle wax on the tablecloth, echoes of laughter of family and friends. Then she dives beneath the surface of the freezing water to the shocking memory of the sudden passionate encounter she had the night before, up against the wall behind the house, as her husband and mother chatted to the guests inside.

So begins a story that unfolds over twenty-four hours and across fifty years, as decades of family legacies, love, lies, secrets, and one unspeakable incident in her childhood lead Elle to the precipice of a life-changing decision. Over the next twenty-four hours, Elle will have to decide between the world she has made with her much-loved husband, Peter, and the life she imagined would be hers with her childhood love, Jonas, if a tragic event hadn’t forever changed the course of their lives. 

Tender yet devastating, The Paper Palace is a masterful novel that brilliantly illuminates the tensions between desire and safety; the legacy of tragedy, and the crimes and misdemeanours of families.

What I Say

Do you ever pick up a book assuming it is going to be one thing when in fact it is something completely different and all the better for it?

I am going to be honest and say when I first read the synopsis for The Paper Palace I really thought it was not my kind of thing. I thought it would be a novel where the well off and distant characters would be worrying about things of little consequence and even lesser relevance. I picked it up because I thought I should, because it had kindly been sent to me. The thing is, once I started reading it, I could not put it down.

The Paper Palace of the name is the place where Elle and Jonas and their families go to every Summer and have done since they met as children. It has undoubtedly seen better days, but it gives them that escape and distance from the realities and stresses of modern life and marriage. After a dinner party, Elle leaves table as does Jonas, and they have sex – bearing in mind Elle’s husband Peter, and Jonas’ wife Gina are sat at the table just out of sight.

The novel then follows the next twenty four hours in Elle and Jonas’ life, as they try to make sense of what they have done. What slowly and delicately unfurls is a whole shared history that Elle and Jonas have. Heller takes us right back to the moment Elle was born, which in turn allows us to see how her parents own experiences and behaviour influenced Elle’s decisions and actions. It seems that all Elle wants is a stable family with her sister Anna and a mother and father, what she actually gets is a chaotic and disruptive childhood, peppered with different father figures until her mother marries a man called Leo. Her mother has endured much through her own life, including being sexually abused by her step father, but this means that she now cannot emotionally connect with her children either.

Leo brings with him two children. Rosemary who tends to stay with her mother, and Conrad. An awkward, resentful and intrinsically desperately unhappy boy who longs for his father to pay him some attention. After initially being an irritating and awful stepbrother to Elle, things become incredibly sinister.

He starts coming into her room at night and watching her while she sleeps. It is important at this point in my review to say that his sustained attention becomes sexual, and culminates in events which are absolutely distressing to read but absolutely crucial and integral to the plot and narrative. What makes it even more horrific is the fact that Elle is unable to tell anyone and carries round her secret, still having to face Conrad every day. Until the moment Jonas works out what has happened to Elle, and their lives are changed forever.

The Paper Palace is a completely immersive novel- you can see the beautiful landscape, feel the coolness of the water and taste the leisurely breakfasts and dinners that the families have. You are part of the languid unstructured summer as the family spill in and out of the house and onto the beach and into the water. If they see other people nearby they feel they are intruding on their sacred peace, and as a reader you absolutely understand why.

Heller draws you in from the very start, and the way in which the lives of Elle and Jonas are revealed to us connects us deeply to them. Their histories and shared experiences are depicted in such a way that you cannot fail to feel a connection to them, and the drastic decision they make is at the heart of the novel, and drives the narrative without ever feeling forced or laboured. The characters work so well because you can see them standing in front of you, and understand how their past lives have shaped their present, but also make you see that their futures are up to them – if they are brave enough to take the chance.

I thought that The Paper Palace was going to be a linear, routine narrative about two people who have do deal with the consequences of a rash mistake. What I didn’t anticipate was that this novel is in fact always Elle and Jonas’ story, that their love for one another would permeate every single page and every decision they made, and that to follow their lives through this book is to know them and want only what they truly deserve. Is it each other? You will have to read it to find out.

I absolutely loved it.

I am also thrilled to announce that I have a copy to gift to one of you on my Twitter account @yearsofreading – please do have a look.

Thank you so much to Hannah Sawyer and Alexia Thomaidis at Viking Books UK for my gifted proof copy.

You can order your copy from West End Lane Books here

When I Ran Away by Ilona Bannister

When I Ran Away by Ilona Bannister

Published by Two Roads Books

Available from West End Lane Bookshop, All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

This morning Gigi left her husband and children.

Now she’s watching Real Housewives and drinking wine in a crummy hotel room, trying to work out how she got here.

When the Twin Towers collapsed, Gigi Stanislawski fled her office building and escaped lower Manhattan on the Staten Island Ferry. Among the crying, ash-covered and shoeless passengers, Gigi, unbelievably, found someone she recognised – the guy with pink socks and a British accent – from the coffee shop across from her office. Together she and Harry Harrison make their way to her parents’ house where they watch the television replay the planes crashing for hours, and she waits for the phone call from her younger brother that never comes. And after Harry has shared the worst day of her life, it’s time for him to leave.

Ten years later, Gigi, now a single mother consumed with bills and unfulfilled ambitions, bumps into Harry again and this time they fall deeply in love. When they move to London it feels like a chance for the happy ending she never dared to imagine. But it also highlights the differences in their class and cultures, which was something they laughed about until it wasn’t funny anymore; until the traumatic birth of their baby leaves Gigi raw and desperately missing her best friends and her old life in New York.

As Gigi grieves for her brother and rages at the unspoken pain of motherhood, she realises she must somehow find a way back – not to the woman she was but to the woman she wants to be.

What I Say

Over recent months, the role of mothers in the home has never been out of the spotlight as women have been juggling home life, professional life, home schooling and keeping everything going whilst attempting to process what has been happening in the world around us as we deal with the pandemic.

I read Ilona’s novel a few weeks ago, and can hand on heart say that I have never read a book that more perfectly gets right to the heart of what it means to be a mother. It is funny, heartbreaking, unflinching and true, but it also absolutely articulates what it is like to have a baby when you are a stranger in the country you live in, and you don’t have the in built support system it is assumed by the medical professionals that you must have to function.

If I also tell you that a lot of the action takes place in a single day in a London hotel while our protagonist Gigi is watching The Real Housewives of New Jersey, and you know how much I love the Real Housewives, I don’t think it’s difficult to see why I loved this novel so completely.

Gigi Stanislawski is caught up in the aftermath of 9/11, and it is there as she tries to get home to her parents that she meets Harry, an Englishman who she knows from coffee shop. It is when they eventually stumble to her parents house that she discovers her brother has lost his life. Harry and Gigi part, but fate brings them together ten years later, and they fall completely in love.

After losing her brother Frankie, Gigi discovered that his girlfriend Danielle was pregnant by her new boyfriend, and with no one willing to take the baby, Gigi did and became a single mother. While she works incredibly hard to balance her working life with looking after Johnny and dating Harry, nothing seems to phase her. When she marries Harry and they decide to move to London, and Gigi discovers she is pregnant, it finally seems like Gigi has the perfect life she has always deserved.

The brilliantly constructed dual narrative means we see Gigi holed up in a London hotel very close to where she lives watching Real Housewives. We don’t know why she is there, what has prompted her to run away, but what we do know is that Gigi is not coping with motherhood. This means that Gigi can share with the reader how she came to adopt Johnny, the reality of moving to a new country with a whole set of customs and social niceties that no one has explained, and most importantly how her experiences of being a mother have led to her running away from her husband and children

One of the many things I loved about this novel are the excruciatingly accurate scenes where Gigi has afternoon teas with other local mothers. However much they try and convince themselves and each other that they are completely supportive of every choice each parent makes, the passive aggressive statements and transparently superior side swipes that effortlessly fall from their lips were all too familiar. Gigi feels at a double disadvantage to these women as she has come to the UK from America, but also had a traumatic and difficult birth with her son Rocky. Ilona innately understands the social conventions and moral complexities of these events, and the language and dialogue is completely unforgettable.

As the novel moves through Gigi’s world, little by little the pieces fall into place and we understand what made her pick up her keys and phone and leave. Ilona draws us close to her, and as we see all her worries and internalised pain, Gigi is so real and relatable that you just want to reach her into the book and tell her it will be okay. The narrative moves forward and brings us along with it, and I read every single line because it resonated with me so deeply. You absolutely feel Gigi’s sense of not fitting in, and her bewilderment as to why she is not enjoying motherhood as everyone tells her she should.

When I Ran Away starts so many difficult and necessary conversations about the realities of motherhood and parenting. Ilona unflinchingly shows us the repetitiveness and absolute mundanity of motherhood, but also for me highlighted the incredibly common assumption that you automatically have an inbuilt family support system ready to leap in when you need it. If you do, that’s wonderful, but those who face parenthood without it need to be heard and understood too. If you take one thing away from this incredible novel, it should be that motherhood is not a competition, and that the most powerful thing we can do as women is to acknowledge that. To truly try and be real about motherhood, rather than falling into the trap of filtering and editing our world to give the illusion of being the picture perfect version we have been made to feel we should project is hard, but necessary if we really want to start talking about motherhood.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Rachael Duncan at Two Road Books for my gifted proof copy.

You can buy your copy from West End Lane books here.

Fault Lines by Emily Itami

Published by Phoenix Books on 27th May

Available from West End Lane Books, and all Good Bookshops

What They Say

Mizuki is a Japanese housewife. She has a hardworking husband, two adorable children and a beautiful Tokyo apartment. It’s everything a woman could want, yet sometimes she wonders whether it would be more fun to throw herself off the high-rise balcony than spend another evening not talking to her husband or hanging up laundry.

Then, one rainy night, she meets Kiyoshi, a successful restaurateur. In him, she rediscovers freedom, friendship, a voice, and the neon, electric pulse of the city she has always loved. But the further she falls into their relationship, the clearer it becomes that she is living two lives – and in the end, we can choose only one.

Alluring, compelling, startlingly honest and darkly funny, Fault Lines is a bittersweet love story and a daring exploration of modern relationships from a writer to watch.

What I Say

Now more than ever, today’s mothers are met with a constant onslaught of online perfection and ideals even before most of us have managed to get dressed and eat breakfast. Every day and in numerous ways we are bombarded with different information telling us how we should look after our children and families, all the things we should be doing and lots of things we shouldn’t.

Mitzuki, the protagonist of Emily Itami’s brilliant debut novel Fault Lines, finds herself not only submerged in a world of expectation and comparison, but is also trying to face the cultural expectations that are placed on Mitzuki as a Japanese housewife. In a country with a myriad of customs and social conventions, she is constantly trying to be what everyone else wants her to be, and has learned to put her own needs and desires reluctantly to one side.

The thing is, right from the start, we are absolutely aware that Mitzuki is unhappy with her life, but rationally she knows she shouldn’t be. She has a part time job as a Inter Cultural Consultant, a hardworking husband, two beautiful children and an apartment that is amazing. If I tell you that at the beginning of the story that she botches an attempt to throw herself off her balcony, it is easy to understand that something is very wrong in her world.

Emily’s measured and taut writing means you totally feel the claustrophobic and limited world that Mitzuki is part of. She feels trapped by the world that everyone else tells her she should embrace, and simply being someone’s wife and someone’s mother is not enough. Her identity is being subsumed by everyone else, and she is wondering where Mitzuki is.

That is why when she meets restauranteur Kiyoshi by chance when she is working, she feels such an intense chemistry with him that suddenly she understands exactly what has been missing from her life. Passion. Being seen for being Mitzuki in her own right and not as a part of someone else’s life. The tension between them is palpable, and when Mitzuki meets Kiyoshi at a Tokyo Fashion Week Event, she knows that he will eventually be her lover.

Beautifully balanced with the present, we learn about her childhood in a series of interwoven narratives. When Mitzuki was presented with an opportunity to take part in a student exchange to New York, it was her father that convinced her to take part. It meant that a whole new world of spontaneity and opportunity opened up to her, which she loved being part of and presented her with numerous opportunities to pursue a completely different life as a singer. After a time, she missed her family and decided to come back to Japan, but to move out of the family home instead and assert her independence.

When Mitzuki starts to spend time with Kiyoshi, they explore the city together, and she sees the world with fresh eyes. I thought it was poignant how the calmness and dullness of the life she leads at home is contrasted with the vibrancy and cacophony of colours, sights and sounds she is met with when she and Kiyoshi are together. She is now living two lives – one of dutiful wife and mother, and one with Kiyoshi where she can finally be exactly who she wants to be again.

Ultimately, Mitzuki realises that she will have to make some incredibly difficult choices and sacrifices, and which ever ones she makes, it means that she has to compromise again for the sake of her family. You really get a sense of the internal struggle and moral dilemmas that she has to face, and how like numerous women you have to subsume what you really feel in order to maintain the equilibrium of your world.

It’s really hard to tell you all how much I loved Fault Lines, because I want you to read it to see for yourselves. Emily Itami has written an incredible debut novel that works so well because although we may not always condone the choices that Mitzuki makes, we can understand why she does. It may be a short novel, but I loved the fact it tackled so many ideas so perfectly. It talks about motherhood, parenting, marriage, identity, love and passion, but above all Fault Lines was completely and undoubtedly Matzuki’s story, and I thought she was fabulous.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Gigi Woolstencroft and Phoenix Books for my gifted copy.

You can buy your copy of Fault Lines from West End Books here.

Luster by Raven Leilani

Luster by Raven Leilani

Published by Picador

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Edie is just trying to survive. She’s messing up in her dead-end admin job in her all-white office, is sleeping with all the wrong men, and has failed at the only thing that meant anything to her, painting. No one seems to care that she doesn’t really know what she’s doing with her life beyond looking for her next hook-up. And then she meets Eric, a white, middle-aged archivist with a suburban family, including a wife who has sort-of-agreed to an open marriage and an adopted black daughter who doesn’t have a single person in her life who can show her how to do her hair. As if navigating the constantly shifting landscape of sexual and racial politics as a young black woman wasn’t already hard enough, with nowhere else left to go, Edie finds herself falling head-first into Eric’s home and family

What I Say

When I was asked if I would like to read and review a book from the Dylan Thomas Prize Shortlist, I knew immediately that Luster was the novel I wanted to read.

There’s always a slight trepidation for me in picking up a novel that has been all over social media, because there is always that nagging doubt that it’s a case of hype over substance, and that you won’t understand why it’s been so lauded.

Let me start by telling you about myself. I’m a 50 year old white woman, have been married for nearly twenty five years and have two teenage sons. On paper, a novel about a young black woman who faces prejudice and rascism and ends up living with her lover’s wife and daughter, and who is unapologetic in her sexuality and lives life day to day sounds a million miles away from my life. How could this novel possibly appeal to me? Well, do you know what? It absolutely and completely did.

To simply categorise Luster in such a simplistic way does not do it justice. For me, this is a novel about a woman who is trying to make her way in the world, to try and find out where she fits in and what she wants, to have an emotional connection and sense of love from someone and for someone. Isn’t that what we all want?

Edie works in a publishing house, at a job she likes, in an apartment she tolerates, and has had numerous relationships with men at the office. When she is fired from her job for her behaviour and sending inappropriate emails, and then loses her apartment, Edie has no clue what she is going to be able to do.

After a disastrous relationship with Mark, and a whole host of office relationships, Edie has been seeing Eric who she met on a dating app. They have spent a long time talking to each other, and eventually they decide to meet. An older married dad of one, whose wife Rebecca, knows he is sleeping with Edie, theirs is a strange and complicated relationship. Punctuated by lust, and Edie wanting to be loved but at the same time not knowing what she wants that to be, they always seem to be slightly disconnected.

When Edie has nowhere else to go, she ends up moving into Eric and Rebecca’s home, where she can see how Akila, their adopted black daughter is struggling at home and school. There is almost an unspoken agreement that Edie will support Akila, but it is also interesting and incredibly uncomfortable to see how she becomes part of this barely functioning household.

When Eric is out of town, Rebecca and Edie are thrown together, and their relationship is undoubtedly unsettling. They vacillate between tentative friendship and outright hostility and Edie is never quite sure if she is a guest or an unofficial housekeeper for them, which also makes it unsettling reading for us too. For Rebecca, it almost seems to be a case of keeping your friends close, and your enemies closer.

I thought it was also interesting to see how Edie is longing to be an artist, and is trying to find a way to use her personal experiences as an impetus for her art. She is constantly striving for a way of expressing herself, and as the novel progresses, we learn of the fractured relationship with her parents, her own traumatic experiences including her abortion and falling pregnant with Eric. It seems that only by living through, and accepting what she has lived through that she finds her artistic voice and expression.

Luster is a frank, unfiltered look at what it means to be a young black woman in America. Raven Leilani has created a character in Edie who goes through so much, and has experienced a world that is so far removed from mine, but I found myself protective and enamoured by her. Her desire to love and be seen for who she is and what she wants is real, refreshing and engaging. We may never really understand what Rebecca’s motives were in asking her to move in, or why Eric had a relationship with her. Yet we absolutely understand Edie’s need to feel a connection to someone, to be seen, to be part of the world around her.

Ultimately for me, the one thing that resonated so completely about Edie is what she herself says at the end of the novel:

‘And when I am alone with myself, this is what I am waiting for someone to do to me, with merciless, deliberate hands, to put me down onto the canvas so that when I’m gone, there will be a record, proof that I was here.’

I loved it.

Thank you so much to Bei Guo at Midas PR for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

Published by Picador Books on March 4th

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The Principal Keeper’s weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week.;
What happened to those three men, out on the tower? The heavy sea whispers their names. The tide shifts beneath the swell, drowning ghosts. Can their secrets ever be recovered from the waves?
Twenty years later, the women they left behind are still struggling to move on. Helen, Jenny and Michelle should have been united by the tragedy, but instead it drove them apart. And then a writer approaches them. He wants to give them a chance to tell their side of the story. But only in confronting their darkest fears can the truth begin to surface . . .
Inspired by real events, The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex is an intoxicating and suspenseful mystery, an unforgettable story of love and grief that explores the way our fears blur the line between the real and the imagined.

What I Say

I have to be honest, when I first received a copy of The Lamplighters I wasn’t sure that it would be my kind of novel. The story of three lighthouse keepers going missing? I just didn’t think it would engage me at all.

I was completely wrong. The Lamplighters is a remarkably haunting and compelling story of how important our memories are, of those left behind when the unthinkable happens, and how the only people we truly know are ourselves.

In 1972, three Lighthouse Keepers; Arthur Black , Bill Walker and Vincent Bourne simply disappear from the Maiden Rock Lighthouse in Cornwall. The door is locked from the inside, the place is clean and the table is set for two people, and the clocks are set to 8.45. That’s it. No Lighthouse Keepers, no clues, and a mystery that lies unsolved for twenty years.

In 1992, an author called Dan Sharp wants to try and solve the locked door mystery that has had such a huge impact on the families that were left behind and the communities that had to deal with all the attention this brought on them. Dan decides to get in contact with the wives and girlfriend of the Lighthouse Keepers, and we meet Helen, who was married to Arthur, Jenny who was Bill’s wife, and Michelle who was going out with Vinnie at the time of his death. Helen and Jenny are keen to speak to Dan, but for some reason they are estranged from each other at a time when they should have been closer than ever. Michelle doesn’t want to get involved, and initially decides not to speak to Dan. What was interesting for me was that how in the background of this narrative, always seeming slightly ominous, was the ever present Trident organisation that has effectively paid off the families to ensure their silence and the women are very mindful of this.

The novel moves seamlessly between the two narratives – that of 1972 and 1992, where we see the reality of life for the men in a lighthouse, and the lives of the people who are left behind after they disappear. What Emma does so well when describing the daily routines of the men, is to show how repetitive and mundane but entirely necessary their roles are. Arthur as the senior lighthouse keeper is meticulous and incredibly proud of what he does, and he wants the other men to appreciate how important their jobs are. He may seem aloof and introspective, but his dour demeanour hides a tragedy that has served to put a wedge between himself and Helen. Bill seems to always be slightly resentful of Arthur, and although initially we may believe it is because he covets Arthur’s job, the truth is far more destructive. Vinnie is the youngest and enthusiastic about his new job, but we learn that he has spent time in prison, and has brought and hidden a gun onto the Lighthouse.

With all three men hiding something from each other, we start to see just how claustrophobic and isolated they are. Stuck in an inaccessible lighthouse, having lots of time to think about things as they do their jobs, little by little, cracks start to form between them. The fact that they have to work night shifts in rotation too, all add to the fact that the lines between daytime and night time become blurred, and their imaginations start to work overtime and we are never quite sure what is real and what is imagined. All the time, ever present is the unforgiving and powerful sea all around them, and as a reader you are all too aware of how all encompassing and dangerous nature is, and how they are completely at its mercy.

Meanwhile back in the Keeper’s Cottages, we see how Jenny and Helen are poles apart in their personalities, and we also discover that Bill constantly makes Jenny feel inadequate as he holds Helen up as to the wifely example she should aspire to. As we hear their stories in 1992, in the form of monologues they deliver while speaking to Dan, it adds an authenticity to the narrative. They tell us not only the reality of having to be a Lighthouse Keeper’s wife, but also help to fill in the stories of their husbands, so we start to fully understand exactly why Arthur and Bill living together in such an enclosed space can only lead to tragedy.

Emma’s slow drip feed of revelations about each character’s personalities adds to the undeniable tension both in the Lighthouse and between the women at home. No one is without fault or flaw, and it is impossible to not empathise with each person as their story is slowly revealed. The moment that Arthur makes a discovery that changes everything he believed he knew about his wife is beautifully understated, and this devastating revelation sets in motion a chain of events that culminates in Dan Sharp trying to uncover the mystery twenty years later.

To say anything about what happens next would spoil The Lamplighters for you, and I have no intention of doing that! What I will say is that as the novel draws to its conclusion, you really feel the sense of panic and despair that permeates the Lighthouse, and there is a sense of other worldliness which only serves to add to the tension as little by little the plots seamlessly falls into place. You understand how incredibly frustrated and bewildered the women must be, and how they are unable to really live their lives after what has happened to them, and that the burden on them since the disappearance has been all consuming and overwhelming.

The Lamplighters worked so well for me because it absolutely wrong footed me – I had it all worked out. Until I really didn’t! Emma has written a novel that not only captures the physical and emotional toll of working in a Lighthouse, and the secrets that are held within, but also gives a voice to those who are so overlooked in history – the women who are left behind to run the men’s world when they are not there. It is a sensitive and emotional novel that perfectly articulates how memory can be an all encompassing force, and that when we are left alone with our thoughts for a long time, they can be just what we need to comfort us, but also the very things that serve to destroy us.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Camilla Elworthy and Katie Bowden for my gifted copies.

Bernard and Pat by Blair James

Bernard and Pat by Blair James

Published by Corsair

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

I suppose that these are the horses from which we are thrown.
We see things as we are, not as they are.
How do we best see? With eyes old or new?
How well do we rise after falling?

Catherine is small and everyone else is big. The world has lots of rules which she cannot keep up with, and lots of things happen that just don’t feel right. With Dad gone and Mum at work, Catherine spends her days with Bernard and Pat. These are days that she will never forget but never quite remember, either.

Bernard and Pat is a tour-de-force, a novel deeply aware of the peculiarities of memory and the vulnerability of childhood. Catherine’s voice is unforgettable.

What I Say

“I need it all, I need to know everything so that I can be anything because I do not know what to be, not what I am.”

How often do with think about our childhood, and the memories that make up that time? Do you remember every detail as if it was yesterday, or do you select the best and worst parts and the rest swims in front of your eyes definitely there, but you can’t be absolutely sure of every detail.

In Catherine, the narrator of Bernard and Pat, her memory is elusive. Sometimes she can recall every little thing, events and occasions are remembered with a piercing clarity that many of us can recognise, but seemingly without the comprehension and realisation that viewing them through adult eyes can bring. Catherine is being looked after by the apparently ordinary and overtly Christian Bernard and Pat while her Mum goes to work after her father passes away. Her brother James goes sometimes too, but what is very clear from the first few pages is that Bernard is sexually abusing Catherine.

The novel is told in short, sharp chapters that perfectly echo the concentration span and understanding of a young child, but as the novel progresses and the vocabulary becomes more sophisticated and erudite, it becomes clear to the reader that Catherine is now an adult narrating her story. Catherine has been profoundly affected by the trauma, and copes by dissociating her adult self from her experiences by using her childish voice. The story is punctuated by snapshots of Catherine’s life and especially her time at Bernard and Pat’s house. Little by little, from things she tells us about Bernard, we start to see how he engineered certain situations in order to molest Catherine.

As a reader it is heartbreaking to read Catherine’s story, to understand that this was happening when she was supposed to be safe. More shocking is that even when she tells her Mum that Bernard has been showing her pictures of naked women, and he is confronted, he manages to explain it away by saying that Catherine saw him looking at a catalogue to choose a birthday present for Pat. Bernard is respected in the community, is intelligent and plausible, so Catherine stays in his care. We are also completely aware of what is happening to Catherine, and Blair drips tension into every page as we wait to see what will happen to Catherine next as we are powerless to do anything other than be a helpless bystander.

I thought that the relationship between Bernard and Pat was also an interesting if troubling dynamic. Does Pat know or suspect anything about Bernard’s behaviour, and if so, why does she do nothing about it? I felt that there were hints to suggest that she did know, and that is what makes this novel even more upsetting, in that there is an adult in the situation who could have done something, but chose not to. Catherine subsumes her anger at what is happening to her, but in a series of recollections, we see how she is directing her anger at other, more weaker children around her.

As Catherine tells her story, we see how deeply she grieves for her Dad, and wishes that he was still there, because then she wouldn’t need to go to Bernard and Pat’s house, and this awful experience would never have happened. What becomes evident through the novel is that she is so devastated by what has happened to her that she even has to eventually change her name to Katy to dissociate herself from the horror of what has happened, and that she will never be truly free of it. When as an adult she sees Bernard in a supermarket, all the feelings come back and she has to relive it all again, trapped by her history she could not escape.

Bernard and Pat is unflinching in its depiction of child abuse, but it engages the reader because the horror of the situation is what is in the narrative we don’t know. We fill the gaps with our imagination and knowledge as adults, and like Catherine, are able to understand the severity and awfulness of what is happening to this child. A novel with this as the subject matter is undoubtedly hard to read, but Blair James instinctively understands exactly how to tell this sensitive and traumatic story with compassion and power.

Is it challenging to read? Absolutely. Yet at the heart of Bernard and Pat and testament to Blair’s writing is our total connection to Catherine. Our understanding of the unthinkable situation she is in, and how totally vulnerable she is makes Catherine’s story absolutely devastating but impossible to ignore.

I loved it.

Thank you so much to Kimberley Nyamhondera for my gifted copy.

One Night New York by Lara Thompson

One Night, New York by Lara Thompson

Published by Virago on 14th January 2021

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

A thrilling debut novel of corruption and murder, set in the nightclubs, tenements and skyscrapers of 1930s New York.
At the top of the Empire State Building, on a freezing December night, two women hold their breath. Frances and Agnes are waiting for the man who has wronged them. They plan to seek the ultimate revenge.
Set over the course of a single night, One Night, New York is a detective story, a romance and a coming-of-age tale. It is also a story of old New York, of bohemian Greenwich Village between the wars, of floozies and artists and addicts, of a city that sucked in creatives and immigrants alike, lighting up the world, while all around America burned amid the heat of the Great Depression. It also marks the arrival of an exciting new talent on the Virago fiction list.

What I Say

One Night, New York is a glorious and absorbing delight of a book, that just explodes with energy on every page. It is ambitious in its scope, and perfectly captures the realities and sometimes unsavoury sides of living in New York in the 1930s.

It starts on the 21st December 1932, with two women, Frances and Agnes, on the seventy-second floor of the Empire State Building waiting for an unamed person to arrive. Why they are there, and what they are about to do is not clear, but what is absolutely evident from the first page is that these women have a score to settle – whatever the cost.

The whole book is seeped in the atmosphere and the deceptively glamourous lives led by the artists, creative people and downright unsavoury characters who inhabit this world. New York is evolving and with its changing and growing skyline, and it is the ever present background in this world – all seeing, all encompassing and in every part of the plot. The descriptions of the people, places, clothes and the lives they lead mean that this is one of those novels that is totally entrenched in the world it depicts, that every page, every scene captivates the reader completely.

Frances is fleeing from her controlling parents in Kansas. She boards a train for New York to go and meet her brother Stanley, and it is there she meets the glamorous Jacks and her charismatic friend Dicky. They want to use Frances as part of a makeover for a story Jacks is writing. Dicky gives her his card and asks her to come and see them when she is settled in New York. Frances is unable to read, so has to take his word for what he has told her. From the moment she arrives in New York and meets Stanley, Frances is overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the city, and you see this vast and confusing place very clearly through her eyes as she struggles to comprehend how she will ever fit in.

Frustrated by Stan’s attempts to keep her in their apartment, she eventually makes her way to Jacks and Dicky’s house, where she meets Agnes, the young woman who will change her life forever. Frances feels a connection and a deep attraction to Agnes, but this meeting also paves the way for Frances to ingratiate herself into the less picture perfect side of New York.

Her relationship with Stanley is becoming increasingly strained, as he refuses to tell her what he does at night, why he has been assaulted, or why there are bundles of money under the floorboards in their apartment. Frances is an incredibly smart and intuitive woman who knows that what Stanley is not telling her is far more worrying than what he is, and when she is faced with an incredible loss, she resolves to find the answers – however distressing that may be.

Agnes confides in Frances about her family, how her Mother is being cared for by nurses, and how her sister committed suicide after being blackmailed by the New York Police for having had risqué photos taken. Now Agnes is being blackmailed too, and Frances realises that in order for them to live their lives in peace, they are going to have to take matters into their own hands.

One Night, New York does not shy away from the darker side of the city at all, and in doing so it opens up a whole new narrative for the novel. It is a world where extortion and corruption at every level is rife, and women are a convenient commodity to be picked up, used and tossed aside when they have outlived their usefulness. The violence is brutal and shocking, but it is completely integral and necessary to understand the way in which this world functions, and why Frances and Agnes are so intent on revenge.

For me, the pace of the novel was perfectly pitched, and you cannot help but feel a connection to all the characters in this novel because Lara Thompson makes you care about what happens to them. One Night, New York is a bold and ambitious novel that works so well because not only does it immediately pull the reader right into the heart of the action, but Lara Thompson has created relatable characters whose flaws and vulnerabilities give them the courage to take matters into their own hands to achieve the lives that they deserve.

Thank you so much to Kimberley Nyamhondera, Grace Vincent and Virago Press for my gifted copy.

Sad Janet by Lucie Britsch

Sad Janet by Lucie Britsch

Published by W&N Books on 3 September

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Meet Janet. Janet is sad. Not about her life, about the world. Have you seen it these days? 

The thing is, she’s not out to make anyone else sad. She’s not turning up to weddings shouting that most marriages end in divorce. She just wants to wear her giant coat, get rid of her passive-aggressive boyfriend, and avoid human interaction at the rundown dog shelter where she works. 

That is, until word spreads about a new pill that promises cynics like her one day off from being sad. When her family stages an intervention, and the prospect of making it through Christmas alone seems like too much, Janet finally decides to give them what they want. What follows is life-changing for all concerned – in ways no one quite expects. 

Hilarious, provocative and profound, Sad Janet is the antidote to our happiness-obsessed world. 

What I Say

Love is like gluten, I should have told the doctor. I can’t process it properly.

I know I should start with some measured and profound statement about Sad Janet, but I’m just going to say this. I absolutely and completely LOVED this book. One of my #MostSelfishReads2020 without a shadow of a doubt.

Right, now we have got that out of the way, you need to know why don’t you?

Janet lives her life in a perpetual state of sadness, but she is aware of it. She is fine just working and being at home and doing little else. The thing is, everyone else wants to ‘fix’ her, and mould her into the person they think she should be – happy, sociable and basically no trouble to her family. They want her to fit in, so they no longer have to explain her to anyone.

After graduating, she has decided to work in a crumbling dog shelter out in the middle of nowhere, with the formidable feminist powerhouse that is Debs, and Melissa, a positive and happy soul who is the exact opposite of Janet.

When she separates from her boyfriend, and aware that it actually doesn’t upset her that much, Janet starts to think about her life. All around her, people are happy- but not authentically. Self medication is mainstream, and viewed as the norm. When Janet is offered the opportunity to be part of a trial for a new pill claiming to provide happiness for the person taking it, and the prospect of a horrendous family Christmas on the horizon, Janet decides to sign up.

Part of the trial involves Janet going to an excruciating weekly meeting, with other trial participants, and it is there she sees a group of people who are just like her, and are really just there to talk about themselves or get the necessary boxes ticked to complete the trials. It’s run by a group leader called Karen who has a badly prepared marketing script and intends to stick to it, and a man from the Pharmaceutical company who is rather chillingly observing the group.

As Janet goes through the trial, her family are eagerly waiting for the new and transformed ‘happy’ Janet, and especially Janet’s Mother, who is eager for a daughter she can finally show off and bond with. This for me is the crux of the novel, and what makes it so relevant and true. We are so insistent on presenting and wanting ours and others best selves constantly, using filters and editing what we show people, making sure our lives are liked and retweeted. Our stock answer to any question about ourselves is ‘fine’, because to be truthful is unpalatable to hear. Janet is unique because she doesn’t subscribe to that – and it unsettles people because it means she is an individual in a world of sameness.

Little by little, Janet apparently seems to be benefitting from the medication, and is more aware of her feelings and those of other people. She even agrees to take an agonising trip to the Mall with her mother under duress in an attempt to try and feel what she thinks she should. That scene for me encapsulated perfectly the divide between how Janet functions and what her Mother wants her to be, and I absolutely felt Janet’s awkwardness and horror at being at the Mall!

Does this magical pill work? You will have to read Sad Janet to find out because I’m not giving any spoilers..

What I will say, is this novel repeatedly made me laugh out loud, and there were lines and paragraphs I wanted to underline because they were so perfectly written. Although it may seem that Sad Janet is a humourous novel about a woman trying to find happiness – that is not doing it the justice it deserves. It’s so much more.

It is an astute and incisive commentary about our world today, and possibly a near future where worryingly self medication becomes the norm, to deal with the fact we are not feeling or reacting in the way others believe we should. The story moves at a perfect pace, and as the novel progresses, you understand that Janet is finding what works for her, and she has exactly what she needs around her already – she just has to see it. Janet is a character who not only thoroughly entertained me, but also kind of made me feel that perhaps being more Janet is exactly what we all need to be right now.

I absolutely loved it.

Comedy Women In Print Shortlist Shadow Panel- Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

Published by John Murray Press

Available at all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Routine makes Majella’s world small but change is about to make it a whole lot bigger.

*Stuff Majella knows*
-God doesn’t punish men with baldness for wearing ladies’ knickers
-Banana-flavoured condoms taste the same as nutrition shakes
-Not everyone gets a volley of gunshots over their grave as they are being lowered into the ground

*Stuff Majella doesn’t know*
-That she is autistic
-Why her ma drinks
-Where her da is

Other people find Majella odd. She keeps herself to herself, she doesn’t like gossip and she isn’t interested in knowing her neighbours’ business. But suddenly everyone in the small town in Northern Ireland where she grew up wants to know all about hers. 

Since her da disappeared during the Troubles, Majella has tried to live a quiet life with her alcoholic mother. She works in the local chip shop (Monday-Saturday, Sunday off), wears the same clothes every day (overalls, too small), has the same dinner each night (fish and chips, nuked in the microwave) and binge watches Dallas (the best show ever aired on TV) from the safety of her single bed. She has no friends and no boyfriend and Majella thinks things are better that way.

But Majella’s safe and predictable existence is shattered when her grandmother dies and as much as she wants things to go back to normal, Majella comes to realise that maybe there is more to life. And it might just be that from tragedy comes Majella’s one chance at escape.

What I Say

As I have got more and more into judging the novels on the Comedy Women In Print Shortlist Prize, one of the many things I have learned is that it means I have a responsibility to read all the books, whether it is one I would choose to read or not. That is the wonderful thing about reading, that in picking up books outside my comfort zone, I have not only found new authors, but also have had the chance to step into the worlds of unlikely protagonists like Majella O’Neill.

Big Girl, Small Town is absolutely and completely Majella’s story and we are with her every step of the way.

It takes place in a Northern Irish town called Aghybogey where Majella lives and works. In fact she has never been anywhere else, and the town she lives in is her world. She works for the minimum wage in a fish and chip shop, and is also dealing with her Mum who is an alcoholic and utterly dependent on Majella. Her father is no longer living with them, having vanished as The Troubles raged around them.

The domestic and mundane life that Majella and her family has, is set against the world around them, and although The Troubles are known as an historical event, in Majella’s world they are part of the fabric of her family’s history too. We learn that her Granny has been murdered in her own home, and in spite of it, Majella has to carry on as normal for her Mum and for herself.

Majella is autistic, although that is never explicitly stated, and we see how she has to naviagate her life by establishing routines and strategies for dealing with the world around her. Everything is very black and white for her, and to cope with situations like the suggestive and rude male customers at the Chippy, she had to ‘learn’ the socially acceptable way to deal with them so that she can function.

I thought Michelle handled this really sensitively – Majella copes by stimming – which for her is rocking on the balls of her feet and flicking her fingers. This isn’t made into a huge part of the story, but as readers we can see it, and it is the little details and quietly mentioned rituals and routines that add poignancy and emotion to what Majella is dealing with.

Her bedroom at home becomes her haven – a place where she can make it just as she wants it, even though the rest of the house is like a bomb site. It is her place to eat, to watch her Dallas DVDs, to think and to be in peace. For me, one of the most touching scenes in the book is when Majella treats herself to a new luxurious duvet set that she has paid for herself. It is joyous to see how wonderful it makes her feel, but tinged with sadness that she has no one to do that for her.

Majella and her mother almost become local celebrities because of her Granny’s murder, but as awkward and uncomfortable as it is for Majella, it almost gives her an air of untouchability and celebrity by association. In a strange way, this helps Majella exist in a world where repetition and the tedium become her comfort.

I would have to say that Big Girl, Small Town is not a cosy, comfortable read. The humour and laughter is balanced by the less than palatable part of Majella’s life. She has unromantic sex with Marty her married work colleague because she wants to have sex, not because she is attracted to him, and through the novel the sex she has is unemotional and without passion. The sex scenes and the way sex is talked in almost a biological sense fit in with the story because Majella is very matter of fact and direct too.

The novel also shows us the stark reality of life for people in a town who do not have a lot of money, and are trying to survive the day to day grind. At times this may seem bleak, but it is also important to note that there is an innate sense of community and at times humour too. Everyone knows everyone else, although it might seem like they don’t, they look out for each other and try to help as much as they can.

Majella’s life outside work consists of her looking after her alcoholic Mum and eating food from the chippy alone in her bedroom. She seemingly just accepts that this is her life, and gets on with it, however heartbreaking it may be for us as the reader to see.

I thought that it was a brilliant plot device of Michelle’s to have Majella working in a chippy, as it is a focal point for the town, and gives the reader a chance to meet all the different characters who go there. It may seem like nothing much happens on a daily basis, but by hearing their stories, we learn about the reality of life in Aghybogey. Going to the chippy is part of their routine and gives some people structure, other people a place to gossip, and for some characters it is their connection to the world beyond their front doors.

Big Girl, Small Town finally offers some hope for Majella after her Grandmother passes away, and a will is read, and when she realises that someone believes in her she finally starts to believe in herself. Majella understands that she has the potential to change her life – all she has to do is to find her courage. If you love a novel that is packed with larger than life characters and writing that moves from laughter to sadness and back again, then Big Girl, Small Town should absolutely be on your reading list.

It is at times undoubtedly challenging to read, as you really feel for Majella and the seemingly bleak life she leads, and it was painful at times to watch what happens to her. This I think is what Michelle is trying to show us – that although Majella is seemingly caught in a world without hope, the chance to change her story is always present – she just needs to believe in herself enough to take the first step.

Comedy Women In Print Shortlist Shadow Panel – Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Published by Trapeze

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Queenie is a twenty-five-year-old Black woman living in south London, straddling Jamaican and British culture whilst slotting neatly into neither. She works at a national newspaper where she’s constantly forced to compare herself to her white, middle-class peers, and beg to write about Black Lives Matter. After a messy break up from her long-term white boyfriend, Queenie finds herself seeking comfort in all the wrong places. 

As Queenie veers from one regrettable decision to another, she finds herself wondering, What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Who do you want to be? – the questions that every woman today must face in a world that keeps trying to provide the answers for them. 

A darkly comic and bitingly subversive take on life, love, race and family, Queenie will have you nodding in recognition, crying in solidarity and rooting for this unforgettable character every step of the way. A disarmingly honest, boldly political and truly inclusive tale that will speak to anyone who has gone looking for love and acceptance and found something very different in its place. 

What I Say

If like me, you are on bookish social media (a lot in my case!) you cannot have failed to have heard about Queenie. When it was published in 2019, it was everywhere, and I have to admit that for that very reason, I bought a beautiful teal hardback signed copy, and then put it on my shelf and promised myself I would read it. I didn’t.

When I found out it had been shortlisted for the Comedy Women In Print Prize, it was the perfect time to read it, because all the noise around it had quietened down and it meant that I could now give Queenie my undivided attention.

I am so glad I did, because I loved this novel.

Queenie seemingly embraces and lives life to the fullest – she has a supportive family, a group of quite frankly fabulous friends, a great job and a relationship with Tom. The novel opens with Queenie at a Sexual Health Clinic with her Auntie Maggie, but it transpires she has suffered a miscarriage, and that actually her relationship with Tom is on an extended break, and he doesn’t want anything to do with her.

What is also evident throughout the novel is the amount of casual racism which permeates every part of Queenie’s world. Strangers want to touch her hair and men on dating apps make awful sexual and racist comments constantly. Tom is white, and although his family appear to have no issue with him dating a Black woman, it is their thoughtless and internalised racism that comes to the fore in throwaway comments or behaviour.

Queenie has a brilliant group of friends she nicknames ‘The Corgis’ – the fabulous Kyazike, her kind work colleague Darcy, and the ever analytical Cassandra. Queenie has an amazing and enviable bond with these women, and their WhatsApp exchanges are so natural and real, that it felt as if I was part of the group too! Their sense of protectiveness and being true and real with each other really reminded me of how powerful and needed female friendships are.

Although Queenie seems to enjoy her job on a national newspaper, she is frustrated by their lack of embracing her efforts to talk about wider issues that affect Black people. Gina her boss is exasperated at times by Queenie’s disengagement with her role, but you get the sense that Gina sees Queenie’s potential if only she could too.

As Queenie starts to grudgingly accept that she and Tom are over, she starts to meet other men – Queenie wants sex and is unapologetic about it. Some of the sex scenes in Queenie are very graphic, at times brutal and disturbing, and one experience she has with a man called Guy was really difficult to read. In fact when she goes to the sexual health clinic, the staff think she is a sex worker, and that the extent of her injuries give them concerns as to whether she has had consensual sex or has been assaulted.

The men she encounters are not looking for a relationship, and the fact she is Black is something they almost see as a point on their score card. What becomes evident to the reader as the novel progresses is that Queenie is using sex as a way to try and feel something, a connection, a sense of power, but it is really masking her mental deterioration and subsequent breakdown. There is also the sense that something in Queenie’s childhood is always simmering constantly at the back of her mind, and that is has shaped how she sees her own relationships.

This is what really resonated with me about Queenie – is that this young woman who seemingly has so much to look forward to is trying so hard to be so many things to so many people, but is also dealing with the fact that she is estranged from her Mum because of the actions of another man. Queenie’s world starts to unravel – a man she has been pursued by and slept with alleges she has been harrassing him, she is then suspended from her job, loses her home and is forced to move in with her grandparents.

Her decision to seek counselling is something her grandparents find difficult to accept, but eventually they understand why she has to. For me, Queenie’s grandparents were two of my favourite characters. Their love and care for Queenie was such a powerful thing to read, and the fact that they dealt with her in the only way they knew how- by refusing to let her dwell on what she was going through was really affecting for me.

Slowly by confiding in her therapist Janet, Queenie starts to let her and us as readers into her life, and we see exactly what happened and why she is estranged from her Mum. Little by little, Queenie starts to rebuild her life and when the man who got Queenie suspended at work is found to have lied about their consensual sex, it is finally time for Queenie to take the next steps in life, but this time, she is in control.

As a forty-nine year old white woman, I thought I was not the target market for this book. I was wrong.

Candice Carty-Williams has written a novel that draws you in from the first page, and it is witty, warm, and a joy to read. At times it is undeniably challenging too, and honestly I found some of the sex scenes very hard to read. It made me think so much about the world Queenie lives in, and the reality of life for Black women in Britain today. Queenie is a novel that is many things, it is fast moving, funny, tender and at times heartbreaking too.

What is at the heart of this novel for me is the realisation Queenie comes to as to how important and necessary family and friends truly are. Above all, it introduced me to Queenie and her world, and I very much hope I get the chance to meet her again really soon.